Let’s back into the subject this way:
A few days ago an African-American woman with whom I often work arrived a few moments late for a meeting, attributing her delay to the big breakfast she’d prepared for her young daughter and the child’s best friend, who had been an overnight guest. They’d had a ball, the two girls, with a pillow fight and all that, and out came the smartphone photos to prove it. Two gleeful kids, one white, the other black.
A couple months prior, my son-in-law and I were running an errand when he asked if I would assist him in another — picking up pizzas for the pajama party his youngest daughter, my 12-year-old granddaughter, was hosting. We carried the caloric bounty into the home and there, happy and hungry, was the United States: African-American, Chinese, Filipino, a Latino or two and a handful of plain old white bread Caucasians. An ethnic rainbow, my granddaughter’s classmates, her best pals.
Now let’s go back 30 years or so, to the mid-1980s. Pulaski County’s three public school districts are at the mid-point of six decades of federal court desegregation litigation. The Little Rock district argues that laws passed by the Arkansas legislature, in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation mandate, effectively guaranteed segregated schools in the state’s capitol city. So clear, so compelling is the evidence — in the statute books — that the state does not bother contesting the allegation.
The parties reach a settlement: a truce, not a surrender. Its terms require tens of millions of dollars in extra state aid to the three districts to remedy the deleterious effects of segregated classrooms, especially as measured in the achievement gap between white and black students. School superintendents and their legislators elsewhere in Arkansas are furious. Then-Gov. Bill Clinton and the state attorney general finally persuade the General Assembly that the deal is the best imaginable and that any alternative would prove even more expensive.
Now it is 2014. Establishment skepticism that the additional money would eradicate, or even much mitigate, the black-white attainment differential had been growing with every biennium appropriation, as of course did the resentment of lawmakers and educators across Arkansas who watched the total outlay of additional state money to Pulaski County reach, then exceed, $1 billion. Eventually they had an advocate in Gov. Mike Beebe, who declared it past time to end the extra assistance. Likewise Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who patiently negotiated with all parties, coaxing them toward the inevitable. Then, months ago, the Hon. Price Marshall, the latest federal judge to wrestle with the case, suggested sympathy with arguments to terminate the program. The three districts had grown comfortable with the added dollars, which had done too little to deter re-segregation if somewhat, though not much, to narrow black-white test scores. Moral and educational imperatives notwithstanding, the tipping point had been reached.
And then it was done, on the second Monday of January, the hearing concluded in less than half the time Marshall had scheduled. As approved, the agreement stipulates that the state’s special desegregation payments will end after another two years and another $133 million.
So, what now? How to address the Everest-scale obstacles to raising up the institutionally impoverished of any and every color? White flight, as real today as in decades past — does it auger only a return to separate but unequal, or, as perverse as the notion at first blush might seem, open a door? I don’t know. We may soon find out.
I go back and forth with friends over the matter of generational change, as perhaps represented by my associate’s experience; and about racial suspicion versus class sensibilities, which brings us back to my granddaughter, and her ethnic rainbow of a pajama party. Private school pupils, all, and each the daughter of a doctor, biochemist, lawyer, executive or the upscale like. I suppose I could wax to their parents about the national fabric our public school system ideally weaves, nudge their egalitarian selves. But I say nothing. They are paying many thousands of dollars annually for education they consider superior to what their taxes makes available. I don’t know if their assessment is accurate, only that my granddaughter’s sixth grade math homework defies her grandfather’s imagination and the weight of her book bag taunts his biceps.
Pulaski County’s desegregation dilemma, as is the attempt to resolve it, is conspicuous only for its size and expense. The Everest the case has always represented — its racial educational achievement gap — is the mountain at the edge of so many of our communities, hobbling our collective progress.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and host of Arkansas Week on AETN.